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Civil Service

Am I making myself clear?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A Brilliant Civil Service, Effective leaders
Head and shoulders shot of Clare Moriarty
Clare Moriarty, Defra Permanent Secretary

Of all the sessions I attended at Civil Service Live, one really stayed with me and I found myself coming back days later to the questions it had raised. The session, part of the Effective Leaders strand at Civil Service Live, was a conversation about leading in uncertainty between John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary, Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of Public Health England, and me.

And the questions I kept coming back to go to the heart of the culture that we want in the Civil Service. As a leader, what can I do to create a ‘no fear’ atmosphere? How do I make sure that I’m hearing people’s voices, wherever they are in the organisation? These are easy things to wish for, but take a huge amount of consistency to realise in practice.

Clare Moriarty presents on effective leadership at Civil Service Live
Defra Permanent Secretary Clare Moriarty presents on effective leadership at Civil Service Live

I shared with the audience a recent lightbulb moment about talking versus listening. You know that moment when someone comes in with a comment that suggests they haven’t understood what you’ve just said? You explain, and then they make the same point again. My reflex at that point is to think, ‘perhaps I didn’t explain that clearly enough’, and have another go. But I’m learning to dial that down, and dial up a rather different response: perhaps I didn’t listen hard enough. If it was worth them saying it twice, have I understood what they wanted me to hear?  

That’s important because people don’t go on telling us stuff if we don’t appear to be listening. They’ll probably make a second attempt, maybe a third. But if I keep repeating what I’m saying, ever more clearly, most people will conclude that I don’t want to hear what they’ve got to say, and give up. And then I’ll have lost the opportunity to learn something.

Really hearing people means making the opportunity to hear them as well as cultivating the art of listening. Visibility is important, though it needs to be authentic. Some years ago, in the department where I was a director, lack of visibility by the top team was identified as a problem. In response, each DG was required to have a written ‘visibility plan’. While that may have created opportunities for people to see the top team, I’m not sure it really addressed the underlying issue.

So I’m more interested in being available, accessible and approachable through whatever means work for people. A conversation at our Grade 6/7 forum in Defra created the opportunity to tailor a role for an autistic member of the team. An email sent after I’d spoken about diversity led to the Defra Experience and Age Network being set up. A tweet alerted me to an incident of bullying and harassment that we were then able to address.

The examples that come up are often individual, but the impact is much wider. We all know that people watch leaders and look for clues in their behaviour about what matters to them. The way that I listen, and how I act on what I hear, is telling people in Defra a lot about me. It helps me understand my organisation and also, over time, shapes its culture.

So nowadays, when I ask, ‘am I making myself clear?’, I’m still making sure that people understand what I’m saying. But I’m also checking that I’m sending a message, through everything I do, that I want to hear from people, will make the effort to listen and will act on what I hear.

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  1. Comment by Kerry Cooke posted on

    I really like this article, what a useful reflection we so often forget the two way nature of communication. We can also misunderstand the verbal as well as the physical aspects of communication can be misunderstood, we need to check in on both. The Diversity Confidence Programme and I Can Fix It are doing some great work on supporting us all to overcome fear of failure. If anyone is interested let me know and I will sign post you. Clare would be brilliant at some point to get your sponsorship for this work as it seems a very much shared interest.

  2. Comment by Fiona posted on

    I find this article really refreshing and I would love to see such an open approach trickle down to all levels. So many times I've seen a problem raised, heard but not listened to. To see leadership placing proper issue resolution at the heart of every conversation is an outcome worth working for. Listening is absolutely key.

  3. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Clare for an interesting article. As a recently trained Mental Health First Aider, I have learnt the importance of listening and how this can assist the person concerned.

  4. Comment by Pat Beaumont posted on

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts Clare. I introduced myself to you outside the lifts on 6th Floor Nobel House and I can attest that you are indeed available, accessible and approachable. That was a brief unplanned moment; however ‘Moriarty’s First Law of Misunderstanding’ remains a light bulb moment that will stay with me. In over 20 years of service in 4 other government departments both at the front and now supporting the front-line - you are by far the friendliest Permanent Secretary I have ever met physically, virtually or vicariously. When is Moriarty’s 'Second' Law coming out?

  5. Comment by Fiona posted on

    Great article Clare - as my 15 year old often tells me, we need to listen & at least try to understand other views & takes a lot of patience & sometimes counting to ten but leads to better & more fulfilling conversations & relationships.

  6. Comment by Heather Simpson posted on

    A great piece Clare. Your message is simple, direct and understandable and a timely reminder to us all to think about giving and confirming the receipt of clear, unambiguous messages. If we're not sure what the question is, what chance do we have of providing a relevant and/or useful answer?

    I also very much like your 'no fear' atmosphere message. We all know that we're paid to do a good job to the best of our ability. Whilst acknowledging that a 'Command and Control' approach has its place and can produce results, a more 'human', mutually respectful and inclusive management style is more likely to get the best out of people and bring them along with you most of the time however.

    Your positive and clear messages encourage me to think that Defra will continue to be a great place to work for the foreseeable future. Onward and upwards!

  7. Comment by Sally posted on

    Thanks for this blog Clare - I've been having a conversation lately around leadership in my organisation and the importance of listening and emotional intelligence has consistently been a feature.

    Listening is a real skill and a real art - I'm not sure we always do enough to recognise listening in that way and tend to judge the quality of a person's communication skills on what they say or write when we should be considering what they hear (which as you've pointed out we can measure by what they do with it).

  8. Comment by Martin Everett posted on

    Interesting indeed. I have been looking at how to better give effective management feedback. There is a lot of useful stuff in highly failure-intolerant situations such as aviation and medicine. This is typically when someone in an authority position is knowingly or unwittingly courting disaster and others need to suggest action to them, without being ignored or criticised. Perhaps this is something the wider public sector needs to look at to improve decisionmaking?

  9. Comment by Virginia Lorenz posted on

    Really interesting article Claire and thank you for sharing your thoughts. It's so improtant to know that people are listening as the impact of not taking notice of what a person is saying is, that person does not feel what they are saying is valued. Its all part of good communications! The way a message is conveyed is also critical and we need to heed Mehrabiens findings that 7% of messages pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken, 38% of messages pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said/tone), and 55% of messages pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression/body language. I remember years ago as an AO in DWP I had a senior manager who - when they wanted to 'tell you off silently' would lower their glasses and look at you over the top of them, glaring... I'm still feeling a little shudder of fear now when I recall it after all this time! I think we do need to all get better at communicating and valuing people by listening and responding, even if it's a holding response when the answer to a question is not known! There is nothing worse than asking a question and not getting any kind of reply. We are all busy...but let's make sure our People feel valued and listened to.

  10. Comment by C posted on

    If your actually going to listen, and act on what you hear, then how about doing something about pay.